Common Reasons Nonfiction Books Don’t Sell

If you want to publish a nonfiction book that lands you a literary agent or a contract from a sizable publisher (with a decent advance in the four or five figures), then market conditions—and your position in that market—will affect your ability to secure a deal.

Writers new to the publishing industry sometimes find it shocking how little they are evaluated on the writing or the merits of their book idea, and how much they’re judged on market appeal—which includes their own personal potential in the market. (Surprise! Most of book publishing operates like a business.)

The good news: More nonfiction books are published and sold around the world than fiction. Personally, I find nonfiction an easier market to understand and excel in compared to fiction.

The bad news: nonfiction is so wide ranging that it’s hard to talk about it as a single, uniform category—even though that’s what I’m attempting to do in this post. You’ll also find varied attitudes toward the market among publishers, depending on their size and mission. Some are, in fact, most concerned with the writing or the ideas within the books they acquire. But if they are to stay in business, publishers have to also consider market conditions, and that’s why I’m writing this post. Here are the most common reasons that publishers reject nonfiction books.

You don’t have a big enough platform.

Writers who have even passing familiarity with book publishing have probably heard of “platform.” It’s the author’s credibility or authority on a topic, combined with visibility and reach to the target readership. Here’s my full definition of platform.

Platform matters a lot in certain categories like self-help, personal development, business, cooking, humor, parenting, and so on. Any category where the reader’s primary goal is to better their lives or learn something, the author’s platform tends to matter more than the book idea or the writing itself. An author with a platform sells more books. Period.

If you try to secure an agent for a book on a subject matter where you lack credentials or no one has ever heard of you, the first thing you’ll be told is to go build a platform. (Or, perhaps more likely, you won’t get told anything. No one will bother responding to your submission in the first place. Sad truth.)

Not every nonfiction book requires a platform. For example, it’s conceivable to sell a memoir without a platform; some agents and editors consider memoir the same way they consider a novel. A platform is nice for memoir, but not always necessary if the story premise resonates in the current market and is compellingly written.

It’s also possible (if not probable) that a smaller or independent publisher would be willing to take on an unknown author with solid credentials and a strong book idea or manuscript, especially the project is a great fit for the mission of the press. Academic or university publishers will likely be most concerned with degrees, credentialing and research—credibility among one’s peers—rather than platform.

How to correct for lack of platform: I’ve written about how to build a platform to land a book deal, although I think reverse engineering the process can be a fool’s errand.

You lack recognized authority or credentials on the topic.

This ties into the platform issue, but deserves its own discussion because so many people try to sell their book on the basis of being an “average person.” Or they believe they can pitch themselves as the “outsider” who knows something the insiders do not.

Some would-be authors can get very creative with this approach and try to sell their repeated failures—without any success—as something other people can learn from.

This doesn’t work. Largely, people buy books from people they’ve heard of or people they can trust. We want to learn from people with decades of experience, who compress their hard-won wisdom into a book we can consume in a few hours.

Memoirists: You are the authority on your own life, and you don’t have to prove your life is unique; everyone’s life is unique. However, your story pitch still has to stand out. It’s not enough to have beat the odds, lived a difficult life, or survived a conflict. You need a position or distinct angle to help your narrative stand apart from all the rest to secure traditional publication.

How to correct for lack of credentials: Try partnering with someone who can bolster your platform and lend you credibility.

The idea or story doesn’t resonate or is out of step with the times.

Like any other industry, the publishing industry experiences trends. It also has to consider the zeitgeist, what people are talking about, and current needs or worries.

For example: a parenting book written today that doesn’t factor in how to handle the use of the internet or digital devices isn’t going to feel relevant to today’s parents. A business book written on teamwork has to consider that more people are—and will be—working from home from now on.

Authors who have been working on their book ideas or manuscripts for years may find that by the time they’re ready to pitch their book, the right moment has passed for publication—or that their experience no longer applies.

How to correct for lack of timeliness: Conduct competitive title research and identify books published within the last five years that are similar to your own. Examine recent books’ content and customer reviews. What are readers looking for? What are their current needs? Use Google News to dig into trends in your field and see what the key talking points are, and make sure that your pitch reflects a current-day understanding of the market. Researching conference and panel workshops can be helpful here: organizers have to offer programming that’s timely and relevant to drive registrations.

Your target audience is everyone and anyone.

It’s OK to have grand ambitions for your book, and imagine it being read by millions of people. But a publisher or agent knows the reality: most books sell in the four figures or low five figures, and any marketing and publicity campaign can only target the most likely readers.

Perhaps more important, though: a book that is written to interest everyone will feel as if it’s written for no one. Your ideas and your assumptions about the readership—how you think of your audience and your knowledge of the audience—will come through in how you structure the book and the voice you adopt.

Authors who have developed a platform or already run a business often have a strong grasp on their target market because they’ve been engaging with that market for years. Consider: What are the biggest concerns and fears of your readership? What do they deal with on a daily basis? Who else do they turn to for information or entertainment? Authors need to be specific and disciplined about who their book is meant to serve.

However, memoirists don’t need to worry so much about this. There is always a market for true stories that are well told, just as there will always be a market for stories of romance, science fiction, mystery, etc.

How to correct for a too-broad audience: Who else has written and published books on the same topic? Once you’ve identified several competing or comparable authors, study their online presence and see who they are specifically appealing to, and how their books are positioned. What can you learn from their positioning? How is your position or target reader similar or different? Learn more about how to identify your readership.

The writing is not there yet.

This is often the big problem for memoirists as well as those writing narrative nonfiction. If you’re pitching the very first book you’ve ever written, it’s rare to nail it on your first try, especially if you have no prior publication credits. Writing and pitching a book to agents as your first step out of the writerly gate is like a musician trying to land Carnegie Hall for their first gig. Can you take small steps first, before diving into one of the most competitive challenges of any career?

One consolation: If you’re writing in a prescriptive area like business or self-help, the writing has to be serviceable, not superlative. Readers of such books aren’t looking for incredible writing (although that’s a great bonus); they’re looking for information that will help improve their lives.

How to correct for subpar writing: Aside from hiring someone to intensively rewrite or edit your book, the only way to correct for mediocre writing is to write more and get better over time. It helps if you don’t have just one book to write.

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Posted in Publishing Industry.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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